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Politics of Human

Rights in North
A framework for change
Won Woong Lee
Kwandong University, Korea
Journal of Asian and African Studies
Copyright 2007
SAGE Publications
(Los Angeles, London, New Delhi
and Singapore)
Vol 42(3/4): 233244
DOI: 10.1177/0021909607076702
The international community is now paying more attention to the systemic,
widespread and grave violations of international human rights norms (United
Nations ECOSOC Resolution 1503, (1970) See Burgental (1995)) in North Korea
due to its chronic famine and nuclear ambition. The issues and engagement
politics regarding human rights in North Korea constitute hot political debates.
There are three key factors to improve human rights status in North Korea: the
consistent international censure; enlarging engagement and people contact
through inter-Korean relations; and economic reform in North Korea. These
factors are interrelated and affect each other. The crucial point is to press and
induce the North Korean regime to a compromise path.
Keywords human rights in North Korea human rights policy North Korean
Though the record of North Korea on human rights has been appalling, it has
long been hidden from sight due to the countrys extreme isolation. Since the
mid-1990s, however, the economic crisis and the nuclear crisis have led to much
greater awareness of the human rights violations taking place in the Democratic
Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The 59th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a reso-
lution criticizing North Koreas human rights record at the initiative of the EU in
April 2003 (UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN 4/2003/L31, 11 April
2003). It is the first time that a UN agency has singled out North Korea for its
human rights violations. South Korea did not participate in the vote for political
consideration. Japan, on the other hand, was actively involved in the vote so as
to bring pressure on the DPRK over the abduction cases committed by North
Korean agents in Japan.
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International human rights pressure has been elevated by the first-
ever resolution on the North Korean issue by the General Assembly in 2005.
North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions are deeply concerning to many countries,
is now expected to face another international challenge. The North bitterly
reacted to the pressure, rejecting it as illegal and saying it infringes on our
sovereignty. This is now fueling concern that these developments and their
ramifications may have a negative impact on the six-party talks aimed at ending
North Koreas nuclear weapons development and domestic reforms as well.
Will the international human rights pressure work on North Korea?
The issues and engagement politics regarding human rights in North Korea
constitute a crucial case study in the field of international human rights politics.
The North Korean regime is facing international criticism due to its systemic,
widespread and grave violations of international human rights norms.
An inter-
national human rights campaign, being systematically exercised and properly
coordinated, could serve as an efficient instrument for promoting and stimulating
democracy in North Korea. The international dimension of human rights politics
on North Korea will show us the possibility and promise of the international
human rights regime (Donnelly, 1998). And it may also cast doubts on the efficacy
of the international intervention to motivate domestic reform as well. The North
Korean case will show us how the international community can contribute to the
promotion of human rights and what other conditions are needed.
To discuss a proper policy framework for promoting human rights in North
Korea, I will summarize current issues of human rights in North Korea into four
dimensions, namely the economic, social, political and international arenas.
Picking out three key elements and focusing on recent development of inter-
national reactions, I will present two possible ways of interaction among these
factors regarding the politics of human rights in North Korea. In conclusion,
I will propose some suggestions on human rights policy for relevant non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments as well.
Dimensions of Human Rights Problems in North Korea
Economic Dimension: Right to Food
Famine still prevails in North Korea (Natsios, 2002). Over one million people
died during famine in the mid-1990s and more than 100,000 North Koreans
have migrated illegally to China.
The North Korean government argues that
the economic crisis was caused by natural disasters and US economic sanctions.
However, it cannot be denied that the North Korean famine mainly resulted
from its collective system of agriculture as well as its political isolation. The
international community, including the USA, the EU and South Korea, has
provided essential amounts of food, medicines and fertilizer in past few years.
But monitoring activities for donor institutions have been severely restricted
and are insufficient. Most of the population is extremely isolated and cut off
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from the outside world as well as from the social security net which is essential
for their lives in the totalitarian political system. It causes international worry and
criticism because the right to food in North Korea cannot be fully guaranteed
without transparency in the distribution system.
Some defectors, most of whom
came from the lowest social strata in North Korea, claimed that they had never
received foreign aid food before they crossed the border and they saw the aid
food being sold in the farmers markets.
Nobody knows who is selling aid food
for what and to whom the money goes. Some argued that the North Korean
military sold the food to gain hard currency for purchasing necessities.
Social Dimension: Fragmentation and Discrimination
Chronic famines in North Korea, destructing the basic social security system,
are accompanied by other social problems, namely fragmentation of families
and structural discrimination. More than one-third of North Korean families
have been severely affected by the economic crisis. The divorce rate and the
number of broken families have been rising rapidly. Family fragmentation
might exert a far-reaching devastating effect on the status of childrens rights as
well as of womens rights in North Korea. The dissolution of the poor family
and its value prevents lower-class children from gaining the parental guidance
necessary for childhood and threatens their physical as well as mental growth.
Widespread population movements as people attempt to cope with hunger
might be attributable to family break-ups (Natsios, 2002: 1112). The key factor
in the dissolution of the North Korean family, especially in the northern
industrial provinces, is the role of women in the Korean family structure and
their burden of running the family under extremely difficult conditions (Korea
Institute for National Unification, 2002: 1423). One of the most striking
phenomena is a relatively high ratio of female population among North Korean
asylum-seekers in China.
Most of them are believed to have married and have
children in North Korea. There seem to be quite a few deserted orphans, the
so-called Kotzebi, or beggar children, as their parents were driven to leave their
family in search of food.
One of the most serious consequences of this chronic economic crisis is a
selective marginalization of its population not only due to its shortage of food
supply but its political structure. Controlling the public distribution system (PDS)
tightly to feed and take care of key groups such as the military, the security police
and the labor party members who are loyal to the regime, discriminates against
the underprivileged and the ordinary industrial labor. The disabled, the old, the
inmates and the hostile class are totally and structurally discriminated against in
residence, job placement, education benefits, medical services and so on (Korea
Institute for National Unification, 2002: 8299).
The structural discrimination in North Korea is being magnified and legitimized
by the military-first ideology (Cheong, 2001: 256). Introducing the military-first
political campaign and strengthening the value of partisan spirit, the North Korean
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regime asks its people to take their misery for granted. However, the KPA (North
Korean Peoples Army), provided with huge work forces and equipment free of
charge, has controlled a significant portion of the national economy through trade
business, farming, munitions factories and the energy industry. The KPA with its
full capacity of transportation and fuel, has taken charge of distributing foreign aid
(Oh and Hassig, 2000: 115). North Korean soldiers have been used as public
workers mainly in construction and mining projects. The KPA also plays an
important role in domestic security, intelligence and border control. As a matter of
fact the military is the most privileged and busy enterprise in North Korea.
Corruption also prevails in every corner of peoples lives from the
kindergarten to the business area. Corruption is a necessary and rational means
for living in North Korea.
It broadens the economic gap among the privileged
strata and the poor.
Political Dimension: Coercion
The other issue is the increasing political coercion. The State Security Agency
(SSA) is the key control mechanism of its population. Its power is increasing
due to growing crime rates and social unrest as a result of the deepening economic
crisis. Many criminals, robbers and traffickers were publicly executed in local areas
during the 1990s, the most difficult time, charged with crimes against people.
Public execution was used as a political means to keep people from deviation and
disorder during the economic crisis. The following is an excerpt from an Amnesty
International report in 1997:
Public executions have been reported in recent years in only a few countries. In
North Korea, according to people who have witnessed them, public executions
have been carried out in front of large crowds, often including young children.
In some cases, executions were carried out for offences not involving the use
of lethal violence, such as theft, although in most cases the death penalty seems
to be imposed for lethal crimes. The North Korean Government denies that
public executions take place and claims that the death penalty in general is
only rarely used. However Amnesty International was able to gather detailed
eyewitness accounts of a number of public executions in several locations in
North Korea, carried out between the 1970s and the early 1990s. This convergent
pattern of testimonies leads Amnesty International to fear that, despite official
denials, public executions may still take place. (Amnesty International, 1997: 1)
At least seven political prisoners camps have been identified so far.
Recently a satellite photo of Yoduk camp, the most notorious one, was revealed
(Chosun Ilbo, 6 September 2003). Landlords, capitalists, religionists, former
South Korean security forces during the Korean War, dissidents and traitors to
the nation (those who attempted to escape to South Korea) are detained in
these camps. Political criminals are usually forced to divorce or their families
are also taken to the camp. The Government considered critics of the regime to
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be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as
including sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sungs picture, mentioning Kim
Il Sungs limited formal education or defacing photographs of the Kims (US
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2006).
Torture, beatings and ill-treatment in the police and detention centers are
widely reported by North Korean defectors (Hawk, 2003). One of the most
serious problems regarding political rights abuses in North Korea is that the
North Korean law enforcement authority takes the law into its own hands
arbitrarily when it investigates and treats criminal suspects in many ways. North
Korean military soldiers easily and quite often intervene in civilian affairs like
police with extralegal means in many border areas.
International Dimension: Refugee and Related Issues
Both the devastating domestic economy and degrading human rights status in
North Korea are closely related in terms of their origin and effect, constituting the
vicious cycle and putting more pressure on its marginal groups to flee (Lee, 2002).
Mass defection of North Koreans in many possible ways will shake stability and
political order in the region. The Chinese authorities have been rounding up
these people and repatriating them to their homeland forcefully. China views
North Korean refugees on its territory as illegal economic migrants who should
be sent back. But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and
other countries have pressed China to treat at least some of them as legitimate
refugees who should not be repatriated.
Thousands of North Korean refugees are working as sex slaves in China
under threat of being returned should the Chinese authorities catch them. This
situation has been brought to international attention recently (Reuters, 2005).
Many NGO members who provided asylum and financial assistance to those
refugees in desperate situation have been arrested and exiled by the Chinese
authorities. Seven South Korean citizens were in jail under the charge of
helping illegal North Korean migrants in China in 2003.
Framework for Change
Human rights promotion might be initiated by international criticism. However,
it cannot be accomplished without active participation and movement of its
own people. In connection with this reasoning, it seems to be almost impossible
to make any progress in North Korean human rights only by means of inter-
national measures. It might be true that a more strategic as well as long-term ap-
proach to change its domestic political setting would be needed. I present three
key elements that could contribute to promoting political change in North Korea.
Pointing out the significance of the international factor in human rights politics,
I will also underline the importance of the inter-Korean channel as well as the
domestic factor to introduce favorable conditions to change.
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Politics of Shame: International Censure
International pressure is one of the distinctive factors in promoting human
rights. The UN human rights bodies, NGOs and diplomacy are major institutional
instruments in the international human rights advocacy.
Multilateral and multi-dimensional international pressure to cope with the
North Korean human rights situation has been increasing. The UN Human
Rights Commission has, for the first time ever, passed a resolution on North
Korea. Amnesty International, the leading human rights NGO, has also taken
action on this issue seriously, asking the public to focus on the famine as well
(Amnesty International, 2003). The US Senate held consecutive hearings on
the human rights situation of North Korea. The US Committee for Human
Rights in North Korea established in 2002 has been one of the key instruments
involved in this issue. New NGOs and civil society networks dealing with the
issue of North Korean human rights have also been established in South Korea.
The EU urged North Korea to open a dialogue on human rights as a precondition
for continuing humanitarian aid. Japan is raising diplomatic pressure on North
Korea to solve the abduction cases.
However, the increasing international censure itself does not mean that the
DPRK will give in. North Korea has always rebuked international criticism. To
ensure its effectiveness, we need to take multiple approaches.
Politics of Contact: Inter-Korean Relations
Inter-Korean relations might be regarded as a gateway to economic development
and survival for the devastated North Korean economy under the circumstances
of tight economic sanctions by the USA. Inter-Korean contacts are dramatically
increasing and deepening in a viable and positive manner after the summit
meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas in 2000. A variety of exchange
and joint projects have been developed. Two cross-border railroad lines were
reconnected in June 2003 even though trains will not run for some time as the
construction work has been delayed due to diplomatic friction. Eight rounds of
family reunions gave the opportunity for over 8000 people to see their relatives
by the end of 2003. The two governments have conducted multi-dimensional
talks including cabinet-level meetings to promote economic cooperation and to
build mutual trust. Two-way trade between the two Koreas has sharply
increased from $400 million in 2000 to $640 million in 2002.
No matter how the South Korean public are disappointed and skeptical of the
positive effects of the humanitarian aid from the South, they can affect overall
economic conditions in North Korea as well as human rights politics in various
First of all, mutual interactions and contacts between the people will send
some information to the North Koreans. Information about the outside world
including global human rights standards is one of the key elements that could
bring domestic criticism on the poor human rights condition in North Korea.
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There is little evidence to prove any positive change regarding human rights
policies in North Korea so far. However, there are some signals showing the
significance of information seeping into North Korea. South Korean TV dramas,
fashion and popular songs are gaining popularity among the younger generation in
North Korea (Yonhap News, 30 November 2003). The South Korean government
has accepted more than 1000 North Korean defectors annually and the North
Korean population in South Korea reached 8000 in 2005. They are contacting their
family members through brokerage and even through mobile phones via China.
Politics of Reform: Guns or Money?
Domestic reform could be the last and decisive factor for the promotion of
North Korean human rights. Without fundamental reform, the economic as well
as political rights of the North Korean people cannot be secured. North Korea
must introduce market-oriented reform and participate in the international
community for revitalizing its devastated economy and promoting its human
rights condition as well.
But the political leadership is still resisting the introduction of a market
economy and integrating its economy into the world market. There is no viable
reform-minded counter-veiling political force in North Korea. The stubborn
military and party elites still dominate in the political decision-making process
and they control most of the national resources. They are rebuffing inter-
national concern about its human rights as imperialist intention to overthrow
the Republic.
Despite the 7.1 economic measures taken in 2002 to cure North Koreas
chronic economic stagnation, the situation has been worsening. Only a handful of
people who have enough foreign currency can benefit from the new circumstances
that are producing unusual inflation pressure on its small-scale economy. The
exchange rate for US dollars has risen from 150250 won to over 1000 won
recently on the black market.
The absence of reform politics and the failure to reconcile with the inter-
national community will cast shadow on any possible human rights development.
However, it is also true that the North Korean regime has been facing tough
challenges to decide which way to go, resisting with guns or changing with money.
Relations of the Factors and Their Possible Results
Those three factors are interrelated when it comes to promoting human rights
in North Korea. Any changes in one may influence the other factors and
reactions from other factors. Among the key factors in human rights promotion
in North Korea, domestic reform seems unlikely to take place in the near future.
Inter-Korean relations are likely to become tenser due to the diplomatic friction
and domestic criticism in South Korea. The relationships of the factors and
possible results are shown in Figures 1 and 2.
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There could be two different scenarios regarding the effects. The first one is a
compromise solution. If the North Korean regime decides to accept the proposals
from the UN human rights body and make a compromise with the international
pressure followed by economic gains from inter-Korean relationships, the do-
mestic human rights situation could be advanced. And it will promote economic
reform, draw more international financial aid and pave the way for political
transformation from the above.
On the other hand, North Korea might continue going its way and tightening
up domestic coercion. In the case of confrontation politics, South Korea does
not give any economic and political incentives to the North. This will aggravate
the relationship between the two Koreas. In the conflict scenario, it could be the
only way to solve the human rights crisis in North Korea if people power from
below overthrows the regime as shown in the case of Eastern European
Suggestions for Strategic Engagement
The international community is now paying more attention to the violation of
human rights in North Korea to protect innocents dying quietly in the darkness.
It calls for more systematic and cooperative measures to make international
pressure work on the North Korean regime effectively. The crucial factor is to
press and induce the North Korean regime to take a compromise path.
240 Journal of Asian and African Studies 42(3/4)
Human Rights Promotion
Regime Transformation
Compromise Politics
Figure 1
Scenario I : A compromise solution
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The role of the USA will be crucial in putting pressure on North Korea and
China. The EU can also take a vital role to establish a human rights dialogue with
North Korea as it is viewed as less hostile than the USA. South Korea should also
take a more active role in seeking to bring peaceful change in North Korea. Japan
also needs to broaden its human rights perspectives beyond the abduction issue.
We need a comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach by various actors
to deal with the North Korean regime consistently. The comprehensive approach
in this context means that both hard and soft strategies can be applied at the
same time.
The refugee issue in China is very critical to changing the political settings
regarding human rights development in North Korea. This issue should be put on
the diplomatic agenda of the major actors in East Asia. Inter-Korean interactions
should be continued in order to promote human rights in North Korea with a
long-run perspective. Humanitarian aid should not be considered as a political
bargaining chip or managed with a short-run populist interest. The South Korean
government needs to clarify its firm resolution on the value of universal human
rights in North Korea. There are some specific suggestions for fulfilling these aims:
1. Accelerating international monitoring activities on the violation of human
rights in North Korea and information sharing among all countries concerned.
It is essential to produce a counter-report against North Koreas own national
human rights report, and have systematic as well as periodic interviews with
North Korean refugees. These reports should be put on the Internet.
Lee: Politics of Human Rights in North Korea 241
Human Rights Retreat
Regime Change(?)
Confrontation Politics
Figure 2
Scenario II : A conflict solution
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2. Continuing humanitarian aid and urging the North Korean government to
allow free access to the distribution places. The principle of reciprocity
should be kept for guaranteeing fair distribution and protecting the
peoples right to food. North Korea should allow international aid agencies
and NGOs to freely access information concerning food distribution.
3. Strengthening UN engagement and attention to North Korea. The UN Com-
mission on Human Rights and its Sub-commission, the UN Human Rights
Committee, and other UN bodies should continue to press the North Korean
regime, urging it to join more international human rights norms.
4. Strengthening human rights diplomacy on China and setting the human
rights agenda in negotiations with North Korea. The EU can take a pivotal
role and US engagement is an essential element. South Korea needs to
speak more loudly on the issue. Japan should broaden its perception on
human rights and speak up on other issues on North Korea.
5. More attention and efforts should be put into solving the problems of
North Korean refugees in China. It is necessary to urge Beijing to accept
international human rights standards to solve the issue. Bringing more
media coverage and public concern could be an approach to push it.
The South Korean people are divided on the introduction of human rights
language into the dialogue with North Korea. The progressive Roh Moo-hyun
government has been increasingly squeezed between its priority on inter-
Korean reconciliation and growing international pressure on human rights in
North Korea, but is still very reluctant to raise the issue in public.
Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy,
describes a stage of mobilizing international efforts to promote democracy
through human rights advocacy as promoting democracy (Gershman, 2002).
He puts North Korea in this category and addresses the necessity of an initial
force to give momentum to democratization. It is worthy of notice that growing
international attention to the human rights situation in South Korea could
contribute to people power and the democratization movement as well.
The author would like to thank Kwandong University for funding this research
and the anonymous reviewers for their priceless comments and suggestions.
I also appreciate the copy-editors time-consuming work.
1. According to the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) news report on 10 March 2006, the
Japanese ruling party is now preparing to propose a North Korean Human Rights Act
following the USA, which has passed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
2. North Korea has taken part in five international human rights conventions so far, which are
two covenants, a womens rights convention, a genocide convention and a childrens rights
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3. The number of famine-related casualties has not been proven because the North Korean
regime did not release any reliable data. Its quasi-official statistics estimated it at 220,000.
Regarding these estimated numbers, see Haggard and Norland (2005: 456 (Korean version)).
4. The USA has provided approximately one-third of the average annual international food
5. The right to food, in this context refers to one of the basic human rights that are internationally
recognized in Human Rights Covenants. For the specific definition of the term, see Committee
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1995).
6. Yong-ku Jin, who fled from North Korea in May 2002, witnessed and confirmed the fact again.
See Chosun Ilbo (daily), 15 September 2003.
7. A Korean humanitarian NGO estimated the female population ratio among North Korean
asylum-seekers in China as up to 75.5 percent (Good Friends, 1999: 21).
8. There are many testimonies by eyewitnesses on widespread corruption phenomena ritualized
in North Korea (Vollertsen, 2003).
9. Apart from Yodok (no. 15), political prisoners camps are known to exist in Hoeryong (no. 22),
Chongjin (no. 25) and Hwasong (no. 16) in North Hamgyong Province, in Kaechon (no. 14) in
South Pyongan Province, and in Huichon, Chagang Province and Chonma, in North Pyongan
10. See the recommendations in section 82(c) in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur, which
underline the principle of non-refoulement (Muntarbhorn, 2006).
11. There are controversies over the consequences and political motivations of the inter-Korean
relations. Tension has intensified since US official revealed another nuclear program of North
Korea. An independent counsel in South Korea investigated allegations that the Kim Dae-
jung administration offered more than $500 million in cash for the summit meeting.
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Won Woong Lee received his PhD in Political Science from Sogang University
in Seoul. He is currently a professor in the Department of Political Science at
Kwandong University in Korea. He has been conducting extensive research on
the human rights situation in North Korea and is actively involved in NGO
activism regarding North Korean human rights worldwide.
Address: Department of Political Science, Kwandong University, Gangneung-si,
Korea 210-701. (
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